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Despite US Aid, Dire Russian Winter

Danil Taskarakov keeps a snarling dog to guard his hovel, but there's little left to take. The sole cow was stolen two years ago, and he and his three small children ate their chickens.

The former machinist has been reduced to a hunter-gatherer existence since losing his job three years ago. He stalks the frozen ground outside this Siberian village for firewood and takes a fishing line to the river in hope of catching something for dinner.

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Things are particularly dire this winter for Mr. Taskarakov and his neighbors.

The poorest harvest in decades, the ruble's collapse in mid-August, and prices that have soared fivefold mean they cannot afford to buy food and have trouble warming their homes.

"I need help," Taskarakov says, watching his toddlers wolf down chocolate bars offered by visitors.

Experts estimate Russia's food reserves will run out anywhere between a few weeks from now and the spring. The country, which imported a third of its food last year, has asked for food aid from Western nations that will no longer grant financial loans due to recent defaults on debt payments.

On Nov. 6, the United States agreed to donate 1.5 million tons of wheat and 100,000 tons of other foodstuffs and granted a low-interest loan of $600 million to buy American-grown food. The European Union is preparing $480 million in food aid and $8.4 million in humanitarian assistance.

Aid is a gamble, with Russia's history of corruption. The EU wants guarantees that the food will reach the truly needy and not be reexported by unscrupulous officials. The US initially demanded strict monitoring, but backed down. Instead, two US officials will be based in Russia to keep an eye on distribution. Analysts say that will be inadequate to prevent abuses. Russia's decision to name Roskhleboprodukt as one of three companies to hand out the US grain has raised eyebrows. It oversaw a 1992 distribution widely seen as flawed.

"There is always slippage, anywhere in the world. But in Russia we are satisfied that 90 to 95 percent of our aid gets through to targeted beneficiaries," says Caroline Hurford, Moscow press officer of the International Federation of the Red Cross. The organization has launched a $10-million winter appeal for food and clothing.

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The security and humanitarian implications of a starving Russia are too awesome for the West to risk. Its bitter cold brings an added dimension to the question of survival: People cannot grow food year-round nor sleep outside.

Russia has had its share of famines over the past century, but Western-subsidized aid only began to appear in force in the early 1990s after the Soviet Union's collapse. Such was the ambivalence over dependency that jokes abounded over nozhki busha (Bush legs), frozen chicken drumsticks donated by former President George Bush. Like it or not, the need for food aid is great. The grain crop was the lowest in 45 years - 48 to 49 million tons versus 88.5 million in 1997.

Many of Russia's needy live in Siberia, where winter temperatures can plunge 40 degrees below freezing and supplies are difficult to transport. The region of Khakassia near Russia's southern border with Mongolia is particularly vulnerable because of its remote location 2,100 miles southeast of Moscow. Khakassia has the potential to be a thriving livestock and mining area but has ceased to be productive. The streets of this small town are lined with closed factories - wood-processing, milk-production, and gold-extraction plants.

Farm workers such as Ektarina Sultrekova and her family will eat their last cow this winter. Ms. Sultrekova receives 2-1/2 gallons of milk per day for her labor, but no money. Two of her five children don't go to school because they have no shoes. "I ask myself every day, 'What can I do?' " she says.

Regional administrator Mikhail Sarazhakov says the last time the local population was reduced to such subsistence survival was after World War II. He estimates unemployment at about 80 percent. "This is peacetime, but there has been a complete collapse of the local economy," he says. "At first people were too proud to accept humanitarian aid, but now they will take all they can get."

Mr. Sarazhakov acknowledges that aid will be little more than a Band-Aid until Russia can revive its inefficient distribution and production system.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last month published alarming figures showing the collapse of large-scale farming, which was only 44 percent of 1990's level.

It said 50 percent of Russia's agricultural production last year was on household plots of less than an acre each. These represented some 14 million acres, or 3 percent of all farmland.

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